A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

When asked to describe the fall foliage in his new hometown, Ernie King, proprietor of Fish Tales Outfitters in Franklin, is rendered speechless. “It’s hard to find the words,” he

Madison County Championship Rodeo

When asked to describe the fall foliage in his new hometown, Ernie King, proprietor of Fish Tales Outfitters in Franklin, is rendered speechless. “It’s hard to find the words,” he

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

When asked to describe the fall foliage in his new hometown, Ernie King, proprietor of Fish Tales Outfitters in Franklin, is rendered speechless. “It’s hard to find the words,” he

Falling for Franklin

When asked to describe the fall foliage in his new hometown, Ernie King, proprietor of Fish Tales Outfitters in Franklin, is rendered speechless. “It’s hard to find the words,” he says. The native hardwoods paint a spectacular mosaic of color on the mountain as they change from vibrant greens to burnt sienna, ochre, crimson, and russet.

Franklin’s natural beauty and pristine waters drew King, a new member of the Franklin community, to settle there after years of visiting on family vacations.

In fall, the cooler days and changing season transform the mountains, and the town comes together to celebrate with a Pumpkinfest for the whole family. Walking through Franklin is “like setting your watch back 50 years,” King observes. You’ll find “mom and pop stores” in a town where people care about one another. Whether you want to fly-fish, hike, drive the scenic byways, or play on the lakes and rivers, Franklin is your excuse to escape for a breath of fresh air.



Unplug and rewind

Franklin lies in the heart of the 500,000-acre Nantahala National Forest, surrounded by clean, clear water perfect for fly-fishing. “Out in the stream with a guide, in the prettiest waters you’ll find, it’s just you against the fish,” King says.

Fish Tales offers guided fly-fishing trips, introductory classes, and free fly-tying classes in October (every other Thursday, from 6-8 p.m.; check website for details). At these classes and on guided trips, you can learn the unique language of fly-fishing and master skills like reading the water, mending the line, and knotting the fly.

Snag a wild trout on a tiny fly at the base of a waterfall or on a nice run through a mountain valley. Watch the sunset gild the top of the river, and hear only the sounds of the babbling water or chittering birds. The trout, King insists, become a secondary goal of the experience; the beauty and tranquility of nature are the real treasure. There’s no cell service on these trips, which preserves the quiet and encourages anglers to reconnect with nature.

Franklin lies in the heart of the Nantahala National Forest and is surrounded by clean, clear water perfect for fly-fishing. photograph by Franklin & Nantahala TDC

 

Have a peak experience

Just next door at Outdoor 76, connection with nature is also the mission. “A lot of people are unaware of what is around them,” says owner Rob Gasbarro. An avid mountain-biker and whitewater paddler, Gasbarro initially came to Franklin on a civil engineering assignment.

Incredible opportunities for outdoor recreation and Franklin’s natural beauty convinced Gasbarro to stay, and now his business has a mission to help others “get more intimate with God’s wondrous creation,” he says.

To encourage even the youngest hikers to get outside, Outdoor 76 launched its Junior Ranger program, where children under 13 can earn shop rewards by participating in outdoor activities ranging from “forest fun” (build a fort, for example) to stewardship (remove invasive plants and help pick up trash). Outdoor 76 staff can fit you with the perfect shoes for all your adventures, and they also offer advice to hikers in search of just the right trail.

Looking for an easy, kid-friendly hike? Head 30 minutes west to Rufus Morgan Falls. The falls are the halfway point on a one-mile loop trail, but it can also be done as an out-and-back. You’ll wander uphill through a quiet forest until you arrive at the falls, a narrow chute and sparkling 65-foot drop.

The trail to Rufus Morgan Falls is an easy, kid-friendly hike. photograph by Franklin & Nantahala TDC

If you want to keep exploring, you can also make the 30-minute scenic drive to Wayah Bald Tower. Follow a winding road through mature hardwood forests, then climb the tower to enjoy the incredible views. On a clear day, you can see not only the town of Franklin, but also Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina. (Be sure to check on seasonal road closures before you visit.)

Gasbarro’s favorite hike is Siler Bald, a 5,216 ft summit on the Appalachian Trail. You can hike from either direction: north from Wayah Gap — four miles round-trip — or south from Winding Stair Gap — nine miles. Whichever way you approach it, once you reach the bald, you’ll be treated to a breathtaking panoramic landscape “with nothing manmade in sight,” Gasbarro says. He recommends this trail to hikers who want to take advantage of the gorgeous views and the less crowded trail.

At Siler Bald, a 5,216 ft summit on the Appalachian Trail, you’ll be treated to a breathtaking panoramic landscape. photograph by Franklin & Nantahala TDC

 

Follow the falls

If you prefer to cruise through the fall colors from the comfort of your car, follow the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway. It runs through Franklin and winds along scenic route 64 between Nantahala’s two river gorges, the Nantahala and the Cullasaja. Driving the whole byway takes more than three hours, but if you want to explore from Franklin, try the byway’s eastern route, called “the road to Highlands” by locals. You’ll climb 2,000 feet in 20 miles and witness the leaves changing colors with your ascent.

Take route 64 east out of Franklin. Twelve miles on, you’ll see the dramatic cascades of Cullasaja Falls, with its 250-foot drop. Head farther east for two miles, and you’ll find “Bust your Butt” Falls (also known as Quarry Falls). Visitors can slide down into a deep swimming hole, wade into the cool mountain water, or enjoy a picnic.

At “Bust your Butt” Falls, visitors can slide down into a deep swimming hole, wade into the cool mountain water, or enjoy a picnic. photograph by Franklin & Nantahala TDC

Six miles farther east is Dry Falls, a 75-foot cascade that got its name because you can walk behind it without getting wet. Dry Falls also features nice facilities, ample parking, and a handicap-accessible upper viewing platform.

Bridal Veils Falls, just a mile farther east, is the final stop before you arrive in Highlands. You can view this 120-foot beauty from the road or park and walk underneath for a bracing shower.

 

Ride the water

For a different kind of ride, try white-water rafting or kayaking on the Nantahala River. The Nantahala is one of the most notable because it’s dam-released, which means it flows year-round.

According to Gasbarro, the Nantahala is a “fun-but-tame” place to experience whitewater, and “great for families.” If you prefer to launch your own craft, visit Lake Nantahala. High above the river at an elevation of 3,000 feet, it’s the second highest lake east of the Mississippi and the South’s only lake with freshwater salmon. Anglers find crappie, bass, trout, walleye, and sunfish in abundance. Access two public boat launches, with rental boats and kayaks at the Land’s End Marina nearby.

Try white-water rafting or kayaking on the Nantahala River, which flows year-round. photograph by Franklin & Nantahala TDC

 

Roll a pumpkin

Pumpkinfest, Franklin’s longstanding celebration that happens every third weekend in October, draws thousands from all over the state (and beyond) for a quirky family adventure.

During the main event of the day, participants roll their pumpkins down a hill to see whose will go the farthest. The winner takes home $100, and the competition is fierce. If you’re in the crowd, watch for stray pumpkins — they don’t always head in the right direction!

Don’t miss the pumpkin-eating competition, roving cartoon characters (the Bat Mobile visited recently), local arts and crafts vendors, and oodles of free activities for kids.

Pumpkinfest, Franklin’s longstanding celebration that happens every third weekend in October, provides a quirky family adventure. photograph by Franklin & Nantahala TDC

This story was published on Sep 28, 2021

Alysia Yates

Alysia Yates is a writer, editor, and outdoor enthusiast. She lives with her family in Raleigh, where you can find her on the Greenways or in her favorite coffee shop.